Archive for the ‘Aranea’ Tag

Class progress at Language School

“You look tired,” said one of my students when I walked into the room today. They were all waiting for me, (I hadn’t realised that we’d be starting earlier today), smiling warmly. I have so much tension at the moment, so many thoughts driving around in my head, but I felt myself start to ease off, and dropped myself into the day’s activities.

It was a pretty satisfying day at Language School, overall. Lower Primary were a little tricky – they have become progressively more tricky this term, not less. It is very, very hard to keep them focused. I have picked up the pace of all my activities, I am talking as little as possible, I am reinforcing the music room rules (‘good listening, good looking, good waiting’) at every opportunity, but still trying to see through the composition project I had planned for them. It is uphill work!

We finished today’s lesson by recording their glockenspiel playing, then I showed them a short DVD clip of my nephew (aged 2 and 1/2) playing home-made drumkit, while wearing a nappy. He (my nephew) has all the rock star moves. His drumstick work is pretty impressive too. The Lower Primary children really enjoyed watching this, so I should dig out some more clips for them to watch of other children playing instruments.

My happiest lesson today was with Upper Primary. We composed the last part of our Aranea music. They were so focused through the whole lesson, offering words, developing melodies, and repeating the song as it progressed.

I am happy with it. It has a catchy chorus, it has a chanted section, and has a bridge that adds tension and build-up, and it has body percussion. I think they will perform it well. The process? We brainstormed words, describing the spider’s situation after the storm (tiredness, remembering the terrible experience, finally going outside, finding a new place to live, rebuilding her home), then we organised these ideas into a chorus, a verse, and a bridge. I had already planned a simple chord progression to work with (Dm, Dm, Gm, A) – we set this up as an accompaniment and experimented with melodies.

Here is our song, composed in about an hour:


She goes outside, She finds her leaf, and remembers what happened.

She is so tired, but when she sleeps, she dreams about the storm.


Now she makes her web. Now she catches food. Everything is better now.


She has a new life, safe and happy, She has a new life, safe and happy.

The storm is gone, the sun is coming out,

And she will live in her leaf in the tree.

The last line is quite a tongue-twister for the students – lots of ‘Ls’.

Despite being in a minor key, the song has a lot of energy and uplifting feeling to it. This is music that we will perform as part of a Refugee Week concert, in a few week’s time. I am hoping to project images from the book at the back of the stage while the children perform, as well as images that they have drawn depicting their own journeys to Australia.

A good day’s work. Maybe I’ll take the night off. I’d like to indulge in some retail therapy, but it is not a good idea. Life is so expensive these days. My trip to Bologna (to the International Society of Music Educators conference) is going to cost me a lot (even with the airfare paid for), and is not something I had budgeted for. Maybe instead I will watch a DVD. I have an Italian postwar realist film out from the library at the moment. Might settle in with that on my computer.

More ESL composing

When I finished school today I got called off to a couple of meetings, and I forgot to go back to the music room to copy and notate from the white board all the composing we did today. So here is a quick summary:

Upper Primary finished another section of their Aranea music, for Refugee Week. Today we made a piece called The White Room, depicting the time when Aranea has escaped the brutality of the storm, only to find herself in a bright white room, with no dark corners in which to hide. She still feels scared and vulnerable, bu is also thankful that the storm is outside, and she is now inside.

Our music is very atmospheric and eerie. Not a tune or melody in earshot!

It starts with a high, thin harmonic on the violin, long and unrelenting. Next, the sound of a hand-held cymbal with a metal stick being dragged slowly around its rim. Then the triangle, held in such a way as to deaden the sound, and played with a stick jiggled tightly in one of the corners of the triangle (sorry for the word ‘jiggled’. What does one call this movement?) In any case, it is very effective, sounding like teeth chattering, or thin bones trembling. Then, 2 more cymbals, this time being brushed with a metal stick in a fast, outward ‘whisk’ movement, every 5 seconds or so.

The rest of the class are dancers and singers, with 2 further children on drums, and one on cabassa. They stand in two rows, in a frightened stance, with their shoulders hunched and a hand in a small fist near the mouth.

They walk their feet quietly in unison. 1, 2, 3, 4. They say the following words every four beats, continuing their stamps:

Scared. (2, 3, 4) Nervous. (2, 3, 4)

Lonely. (2, 3, 4) Outside. (2, 3, 4).

Her heart is running very fast! (The stamping stops on this phrase, and the instrumental group also stops playing. The rhythm of this phrase is then echoed on the two drums).

She can’t hide anywhere. Someone could come and kill her! (The rhythm phrase is echoed on the cabassa and violin, and all the cymbals and triangle, held so as to deaden the sound).

The sound then stops dead and everybody freezes. End of section.

We have one more section to compose. I think it will be a song, a quiet, tired song, when Aranea makes it to a more sheltered place and can finally collect herself.

We will then recap the opening song and music.

Middle Primary continued their musical time-capsule. They keep amazing me with their gifts for melody and part-singing. Today we looked at Journey words, and my aim was to gather a list of types of transportation the children in the class had used to get to Australia.

Some of the stories and memories were very poignant. Some of the phrases that emerged were immediately sing-able. It quickly became a song, made up of vocal ostinati, in two parts:

Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train. Car and plane and bus, then train.

From Afghanistan to Islamabad! From Afghanistan to Islamabad!

Car to grandma, car to plane. Leipzig to Frankfurt and Singapore.

We waited… 2 hours. We waited … 4 hours. We waited… 8 hours. We waited 16 hours!

So sleepy, my dad had to carry me. So sleepy, my dad had to carry me

It ends very quietly, with each of the children whispering the length of time their own journey took to get here: “It took 3 days…” “It took 24 hours…” “It took 8 hours…” The whispering continues but gradually gets quieter and quieter, until, on my cue, it stops.

You can listen to it here:

No more composing needed for Middle Primary. Now we need to rehearse and memorise our four sections of music.

Lower Primary today were a bit unsettled. No, in fact, very unsettled. My plan this week was to set their Name Rhythms to specific pitches (that they would choose), to build up three layers, or two call-and-response patterns. By the end of the lesson, we had kind of succeeded in working out the latter, but I have no idea how much of the whole task and process the children were comprehending. It was one of those days for them, I feel.

Language School Projects Term 2

My three composition projects at the Language School are progressing well. Tonight I want to spend some time reflecting on each of them. My overall theme this term was to build pieces around journeys and identity; with the Lower and Middle Primary classes I also wanted to work on their pitch awareness, and start to hone their understanding of high and low notes, and how different pitches related to each other.

Lower Primary

‘Identity’ is a big starting point for this age group – especially when there are lots of students with very little English, and a significant gender imbalance in the group (only 2 girls) which changes the energy, focus and behaviour styles in the group.

I find I often start with, and come back to, names – the children’s names. You can get so much musical mileage out of names. In this project, we have practiced clapping the syllables of all the names in the class. We string several names together in a row and clap the syllables one after the other, to make a longer rhythm. We set up two strings of rhythms and divide into two groups, and clap them at the same time. We practice our rhythmic skills by doing lots of ‘call and response’ rhythms, and multiple rhythm layers games, which teach the children to be aware of, but not put off by, more than one rhythm being performed at a time.

At this point we have narrowed our use of names down to two strings of four names. The rhythms from the syllables take up two bars of 4/4, and are:

  1. Ta ta ta (sah) ta (sah) ta ta
  2. Ta ti-ti ta (sah) ti-ti ta ti-ti ta

Last week we divided into two groups and performed the rhythms consecutively (4 repetitions each), and then concurrently. I want them to get used to playing a number of repetitions in a row, then stopping, but counting the other group’s repetitions, then starting again. Looping this kind of pattern over and over, often enough for them to start to feel instinctively what 4 repetitions feels like.

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Ideas for Term One, ELS

Tomorrow is my first day back at the Language School (ELS). I will have three classes again – Lower, Middle and Upper Primary. The age ranges roughly correspond to years P-2, 3-4, 5-6 respectively.

My plan this term is work again with books and text, and to develop music composition activities that support some of the oral language and literacy goals for the classes. We will try chants drawn from the text, song-writing, composed music that expresses the emotion or dramatic journey of the story, and other ideas.

But it is hard to find the ideal books for this kind of work. It is good if there is an element of repetition in the text; fairly simple vocabulary, as lots of new words will make it too challenging for the newest arrivals; but it is also important to find age-appropriate books if possible, that fit with these vocabulary restrictions. It is good too, if the books introduce useful new vocabulary – such as clothes, colours, foods, transport, and so on.

The books I have chosen for this term, in consultation with one of the teachers, are:

  • Shoes from Grandpa by Mem Fox (Lower Primary)
  • What’s that noise? What’s that sound? by Morris Lurie (Middle Primary)
  • ARANEA – A story about a spider by Jenny Wagner (Upper Primary)

Shoes from Grandpa is very light-hearted, and lists lots of different kinds of clothes, it has a rhyming scheme that is fairly regular, and is repetitive, adding a line to the repetition at a time. I first came across this book reading it to my 2-year-old nephew in Brisbane.

What’s that Noise? What’s that sound? has an excellent ‘chorus’ that rhymes and is repeated throughout the book. It starts with a feeling of scary noises in the night, and ends in fantasy world, so musically there are lots of jumping-off points for composing.

Aranea is in fact quite a wordy book, but the story, very simply, poignantly told, and the illustrations, are beautiful. This is a book I had as a child and I loved it, and loved my parents reading it to me. It has simple refrain that is repeated 3 or 4 times through the story, but more significantly for this age group, it has a level of emotional content that I think they will connect with. The story has parallels with a refugee or immigrant’s experience, of arriving in a new place and feeling unsafe and conspicuous.

However, despite liking things about each of these books, I also have some doubts. I will continue to search for books for ESL kids, that do not require the vocab of a native English speaker, that have ‘pathways’ into them via repetition, refrains and ‘choruses’ in the text, that have engaging, age-appropriate story lines, and musical properties! A tall order, I know, but probably someone out there has already written such books.

If you have any recommendations, please leave them as comments – thanks!

And now, because I am in a reflective mood, here are some photos of reflections on the River Arno, in Pisa, from my recent trip.

clouds on Arno, enhanced

cloudy water

Gothic sunset